CLINTON PORTIS is seated on the balcony of his apartment in Miami, 21 floors up, staring at the sea. Inside, a group has gathered. Two friends by the pool table, two more on the couch. John Legend is playing through the speakers. In past years, during the Washington Redskins' bye week, Sean Taylor might have stopped by too. But not today. � Taylor, the former Redskins safety, has been gone nearly a year now. Portis watches the last of the fading sky over Biscayne Bay, listening to the wind. "You feel like you're carrying on a legacy," says Portis, the NFL's second-leading rusher and the face of the resurgent Redskins. "All of a sudden people looked to me as the voice of Sean, even if I didn't know if I was the person for that. I didn't want attention from a tragedy, but with the spotlight being on me, people are always going to think about Sean. We had the same image and the same character. Me and Sean were a different realm."
That Portis, 27, is having the best season of his seven-year NFL career in the wake of Taylor's death last November is not a coincidence. They were teammates at the University of Miami and roommates when the Redskins drafted Taylor four years ago. One time they even went rogue together, both wearing socks that didn't match their Redskins uniforms, incurring fines from the league.
If a balky knee doesn't keep Portis out of this Sunday night's NFC East showdown with the Dallas Cowboys, when he lines up behind quarterback Jason Campbell at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., he will be, in a way, going rogue once more. In every game since his friend's death, Portis has worn two uniform numbers, his own 26 on his Redskins jersey and Taylor's number 21 on a T-shirt underneath.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 26 last year, Taylor was shot in the leg by intruders at his South Florida house, the bullet tearing through his femoral artery and causing massive loss of blood. While Taylor was fighting for his life at a Miami hospital, Portis was at a nearby hotel, alternating between optimism and despair. Around 5 a.m. on Nov. 27, he heard a banging on his door. Portis had a bad feeling. The Redskins' owner, Dan Snyder, was on the other side.
"I just put my head back down on the pillow like, Damn," Portis says. "When I got up to go open the door, Mr. Snyder was there crying."
BEFORE TAYLOR'S death and its somber aftermath, Portis's outlook had been lighter. Three years ago, during a trip to the Borgata hotel in Atlantic City, he found a costume store and went on a shopping spree—wigs, hats, the works. A longtime jokester in the Redskins' locker room, Portis now had the goods to become a kind of latter-day Flip Wilson, holding press conferences in the guise of an assortment of oddball characters in goofy costumes, the way he used to dress up as a kid in Laurel, Miss.
"My little cousin would always pretend to be from Dallas, and I was always from Chicago, New Orleans or Miami," Portis says. "We would change our names all the time and pretend we were someone else."
Says Deiric Jackson, Portis's teammate at Gainesville ( Fla.) High, "He's always been a big comedian. I always told him that when he gets through playing football, he needs to do that." Jackson recalled a night when the two of them went out together. He had an earlier curfew than Portis, who kept extending the evening. "It was funny to him," Jackson says. "As soon as we got home, I'm scared to walk through the door. I start tiptoeing toward the door, and he just honks his horn and yells, 'See you, D!' and speeds off."
While Portis was a known prankster at Miami, it was the curious personalities he created with the Redskins that cemented his reputation for silliness and made him an Internet sensation. There was Southeast Jerome, a character with a black wig and fake gold teeth; Dolemite Jenkins, a take on Napoleon Dynamite (instead of a VOTE FOR PEDRO T-shirt, Jenkins wore one with VOTE FOR SANTANA on the front); Sheriff Gonna Getcha, who sported goofy oversized glasses and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt; and Coach Janky Spanky, a pot-bellied defensive coordinator with an oversized headset who insisted that the only way to slow down Clinton Portis was with 13 defenders—two extra Sean Taylors.
Soon Portis was receiving costumes in his locker from fans and even the team's p.r. department. While taping an off-season segment for the NFL Network, Portis introduced four more characters, including Prime Minister Yah Mon, who briefly considered running for president.